As I wrote in my last post, I am very concerned about the lack of comprehensible, consistent language to talk about the hugely diverse ways in which people are using the internet to bring about social and political change. Pleasingly, it seems I’m not entirely alone in this, as some good posts from Nathaniel Heller and Tiago Peixoto make clear. So, to continue the discussion, I’m going to use this post to set out some suggested language that I’ve been thinking about for a while.
We need a family of terms – not another one-off slogan
First up, let’s talk about scope. The problem with so many tech buzzwords is that they’re one-offs, they don’t link to other more familiar ideas nicely. So I started from the view that we need a family of several terms that can be used to describe everything from Wikileaks to Votizen, and that they shouldn’t be too novel or new. We need a family of interlinked terms that concisely and clearly describes both how projects in this broad field are similar and how they are different.
But before I can set out my suggested family of terms, I need to step back and ask ‘what is this sector we’re talking about naming and segmenting, anyway?’
A name for the whole sector
Obviously defining any area of human endeavour is a fraught process: you can’t ever draw a definitive ring around a bunch of ideas, activities or organisations and say ‘this group is perfectly defined and totally unambiguous’. So instead of losing sleep over that I’m simply going to say that I would find it useful if there was a name for the sector that includes everything from Obama for America to Anonymous to Avaaz to Nation Builder to the Sunlight Foundation.
My approach to finding an appropriate name was to look at the way that other internet industry sectors are named, so that I could choose a name that sits nicely next to very familiar sectoral labels. For example, there’s ecommerce, which deals with people’s need to shop. There’s online dating, which is about people’s need for relationships. There are social networks, which are about serving people’s needs to keep up with their friends. What divides these sectors, broadly speaking? The answer is that each sector is primarily focussed on serving a different kind of user need (please note the ‘primarily’ there – there are obviously overlaps). Whether you need music, or games, or financial services, or medical advice – there’s a relatively clearly named sector already online to help you.
So what is the unifying need that ties together things are different as Wikileaks, Anonymous, Kiva or the Open Knowledge Foundation? I would argue that despite their many differences, all of the organisations in this sector are about serving people’s need to obtain and deploy power.
Now I know that power can sound like a negative word (as in ‘power mad’ or ‘absolute power’), but I am using it in a non-judgemental way. Wikipedia defines power as ‘the ability to influence the behaviour of people’. When you vote, or sign a petition, or retweet a political link you’re trying to exert some power over someone somewhere, and that doesn’t make you a bad person!
So I suggest that we name the broad field in which we work the Civic Power sector. Why these two words? Because unlike ‘open’ or ‘peer’ or ‘digital’ I think that most people will have a rough sense of what these two words mean, especially when sandwiched together. I hope you can see Civic Power sitting reasonably nicely alongside existing fields like ecommerce, gaming, streaming video, online news and so on.
Segmenting the Civic Power sector
Choosing a single sectoral name – Civic Power – is not really the point of this exercise. The real benefit would come from being able to segment the many projects within this sector so that they are more easy to compare and contrast.
Here is my suggested four part segmentation of the Civic Power sector:
Decision Influencing organisations
Regime Changing organisations
Citizen Empowering organisations
Digital Government organisations
So, what do these terms mean?
I’ve tried to keep the names as self explanatory as I can. Here’s what I mean by my four titles:
- Decision influencing organisations try to directly shape or change particular decisions made by powerful individuals or organisations.
- Regime changing organisations try to replace decision makers, not persuade them.
- Citizen Empowering organisations try to give people the resources and the confidence required to exert power for whatever purpose those people see fit, both now and in the future.
- Digital Government organisations try to improve the ways in which governments acquire and use computers and networks. Strictly speaking this is just a sub-category of ‘decision influencing organisation’, on a par with an environmental group or a union, but more geeky.
Putting Organisations into Categories
To make it all a bit more practical, here’s a table where I put various well known digital-native groups into different categories, based on each organisation’s primary mission. Note that many organisations listed below will have activities that fit into several of these categories, but I am segmenting them by their core purposes, or, to put it another way – their founders’ main desires:
FYI the ‘REBEL’ logo refers to Tamarod, in Egypt, and their massive anti-Morsi petition.
Can you sub-segment these even further?
Even these categories are still pretty big. I can certainly see how further sub-segmentations might work, like ‘Transparency-based decision influencing organisations’ (e.g. Human Rights Watch) vs ‘Legal challenge-based decision influencing organisations’ (e.g. EFF). But I don’t think it is worth delving deeper down the hierarchy until a debate has been had about the top of the tree.
So there we go, one part-baked naming system awaiting your feedback. Please let me know if you have any problems with this structure, or if you can see better ways of saying the same things. For me, I’m just pleased that I have some terms which I can try to use to make slightly more sense of the complex world in which mySociety finds itself.
A lot of people come to mySociety to reuse our code having seen the UK websites, which is great! Then you can see what we’re trying to do in the UK and how you could replicate it abroad. But what I wonder, and what lead me to write this blog post, is are we reining in your imagination for what these platforms could be used for?
9 times out of 10, when someone contacts me about FixMyStreet, it’s for street reporting problems. Naturally, it’s in the name of the platform! But we do get the occasional request to use it differently, which is something we’re really keen to explore. Here are some things I think it could be used for, that aren’t street related:
1) Antiretroviral Drug shortages in clinics in Africa.
The background: 34% of the world’s HIV positive population currently live in Southern or Eastern Africa . These people need antiretroviral drugs to survive, some of which could be supplied by the Government’s medical stores, some of which could be supplied by charities, but it is often reported that there are shortages of drugs at some clinics 
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which health clinic staff can use to report the status of their stock to the relevant supplier. The site would instantly send an email to the clinic supplier when the staff member dropped a pin on their clinic on a map in the site. There could be different alert categories such as “stock running low”, “stock critically low” and “Out of stock”
Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to enable clinics to report on the status of their stock far enough in advance that the supplier could order and deliver stock before they hit the Critically low or Out of Stock status. This would mean that people would always be supplied with ARVs if they need them. Another point would be that patients could check the map to see if the clinic in their area has stock of the ARVs they need, and potentially choose another clinic if there is a shortage.
The background: It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that some species of wildlife are under threat. Wildlife conservation charities, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), annually monitor population levels for endangered species  to ensure they have accurate data on population growth or decline and the lifestyles and habitats of the wildlife they are aiming to preserve.
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which allows people to report sightings of endangered animals to wildlife conservation charities. The site would be tailored for area (eg the endangered animals native to certain countries) or could simply be per species (eg mammals, avians etc). The public would then be able to take a picture of the animal, attach it to the report and leave a short message, like “2 adult bitterns accompanied by young seen at 10:41am). The report will give the charities the location the animal was spotted in and they will be able to add this to their research data.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Hopefully this idea would contribute valuable data to the research of Wildlife Conservation charities. Another hope is that it would make people more interested in the wildlife in their surrounding area, thus more involved in conserving it and its habitat.
3) Reporting polluted Waterways
The background: You may have seen the reports from China earlier this year about the dead pigs found in the Huangpu River . It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: around the world rivers, canals and lakes are becoming more and more polluted.  In fact the statistics coming from the UN are quite shocking. This not only has a harmful effect on wildlife in the river, but could lead to longer term issues with clean drinking water, especially in countries where cleaning polluted water is an expensive option.
The concept: This is very similar to the classic FixMyStreet. A website would be set up where a person could submit a photo and report of a polluted waterway by dropping a pin on a map at the position of the river. This report would then get sent to the local council or persons responsible for caring for the waterway.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Similarly to FixMyStreet in the UK, this would help to get citizens more actively involved in their local area and government. The idea would also be that the council would hopefully start dedicating more resources to clear rivers and waterways. Or local residents could form a group to remove litter themselves. In the case of chemical or oil spills this would obviously not be advised. However if chemical waste or oil spillages were noticed to be originating from specific buildings then the council would have the opportunity to bring this up with the residents or companies in these buildings.
So those are some of my ideas! What are yours?
We’re actively looking to support non-street uses of FixMyStreet so please do get in contact on email@example.com with your ideas and we’ll work together to see how we can achieve them!
Oh, and, don’t worry if you still want a classic FixMyStreet, we’ll help you with that too!
 Orangutan by Matthew Kang
 Primary colours by Vineet Radhakrishnan
I don’t think it is too controversial to make the following – rather boring – assertions: Greenpeace is part of the environmental movement. Oxfam is an international development charity. Human Rights Watch is part of the human rights movement. Obama for America is a political campaign. Facebook dominates the social networking sector. I hope none of these simple, descriptive statements has caused you to turn purple with semantic rage.
But what primary movement or sector is mySociety part of? Or Avaaz? Or Kiva? Or Wikileaks? When I ask myself these questions, no obvious words or names race quickly or clearly to mind. There is a gap – or at best quite a bit of fuzziness – where the labels should go.
This lack of good labels should surprise us because these groups definitely have aims and goals, normally explicit. Also, it is unusual because social and political movements tend to be quite good at developing names and sticking to them. If you were given a time machine you could tell a Victorian that you were ‘pro-democracy’ or ‘anti-slavery’ and the locals would have no trouble understanding you. Terms like ‘gender equality’, ‘small government’, ‘cancer research’, ‘anti-smoking’, even ‘anti-capitalist’, can comfortably be used by news media companies without fear of baffling the audience. The public can also easily understand terms that referred to methods of achieving change, rather than goals, terms like ‘political TV advertising’, ‘protests’, ‘petitions‘ and ‘telethons’.
But now let’s look at some of the common terms that are used to talk about the (very) wide field of digital social change projects. These include ‘digital transparency’, ‘hacktivism’, ‘peer production’, ‘edemocracy’, ‘clicktivism‘ and ‘open data’. But if you tried to slip one into a newspaper headline, the terms would definitely fall beneath the sub-editor’s axe before they could make it to print. They are too niche, and too likely to confuse readers.
The first thing to note about most of these terms is the way that they refer to methods, rather than goals of social change. But this isn’t completely unprecedented, and isn’t a reason to dismiss these terms out of hand. The name ‘Chartists‘ does indeed refer to people who used the publication of a charter as a political tool, but the name signified a huge bundle of values, methods and goals which went way beyond the deployment of that document.
Nevertheless, to me it still just doesn’t feel like the broad, loosely coupled fields of human endeavour which stretch from Anonymous to JustGiving have decent labels yet – especially not labels that signify the ways in which two things can be both similar and different (e.g. ‘rail station’ and ‘bus station’). And this worries me because consistent names help causes to persist over time. If the field of AIDS research had been renamed every 6 months, could it have lasted as it did? Flighty, narrowly used language confuses supporters, prevents focus and is generally the enemy of long term success.
So, why does this dearth of decent sector labels exist, and can we do anything about it? The short version is, I don’t know. But I do know that the easy answer, ‘It’s all too new to have names’ cannot be right any more, not now that millions have signed petitions, joined Avaaz, donated to Obama online and so on.
I don’t know why the category terms in these sectors are so weak and changeable, but I am posting today because I would love to hear the thoughts of other people who might have some ideas as to the causes, and possible solutions. Here are some theories about the lack of good labels, off the top of my head:
I think some of the terms currently in circulation were coined in anticipation of the development of possible projects, not after retrospectively reviewing them. So the category terms sometimes seem to define what a field might look like, rather than what it ends up looking like (think ‘edemocracy‘, from a decade ago). This means the terms often feel like they don’t describe real projects very well.
In the traditional (for-profit) internet industry a certain amount of money can be made from coining or becoming associated with new terms (think of IBM and ‘smarter cities’). Because there is a profit motive, there may be a structural incentive to rapidly create new terms which displace older ones which haven’t been widely adopted yet. There are probably similar incentives in some academic fields too – career rewards for coining a key term.
Terms in these fields we work in are usually minted one at a time – ‘only children’ as opposed to born as whole families of interconnected terms. This is unlike the sciences which, since Linnaeus came up with his elegant way of naming living things, have been good at developing naming systems, not just one-off names. Organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry are related, but different in important ways – the names helpfully show that. To explain how 38 Degrees and mySociety are similar in some ways but different in other very significant ways needs a way of naming things that can signal both commonality and difference.
The knowledge-sharing disconnect between the academic and activist/practitioner communities is really, truly terrible, everywhere except data-driven voter-targeting. People who run services or campaigns normally never hear about what the brightest academics are saying about their own work. And if they do try to pay attention to the ideas coming out of academia then the signal to noise ratio is too bad and the filters are too few and too busy having day jobs.
And, of course, I should namecheck the sceptic’s probable theory: this would argue that good, clear terms don’t exist because all these widely differing organisations are nothing more than meaningless feel-good bunk, so language slides off them like an egg off Teflon. I don’t subscribe to this theory, of course, but it’s worth noting because I’m sure some people would provide this answer to my question.
I am planning to write a follow-up blog post to this containing some suggested terms we might use to reflect what the many digital projects out there have in common, and how they are different.
But before I do, I would like to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is a real problem at all, and if so why that might be, and what we might do about it. Who knows, maybe someone will even write a blog post about it, like we’re back in 2003 or something…
The Internet has thrown up a host of challenges for governments, large and small. Most people are familiar with the problems presented by issues like hacking, but there is another challenge which probably worries local governments just as much.
The challenge is this – how can a local government cheaply and efficiently cope with the fact that the public wants to request many services through a rapidly expanding plethora of different channels – phones, websites, email, apps, and Twitter? And how can it keep control of costs when new channels are being invented all the time?
The good news is there’s an answer that can prevent each new channel leading to ever-greater costs – a free technology called Open311. The bad news is not many people know it exists, let alone how to use it, or how it works.
In this post, and two more to follow, we’ll explain how Open311 can help governments (and citizens), how it functions, and what mySociety is doing to make Open311 work a bit better.
Background – the status quo
At mySociety, we’ve been running services for years that send messages of different kinds to government bodies, on behalf of our users. Since the very beginning we’ve always been keen that any public servant or politician who receives a message via one of our systems gets it in a familiar form that doesn’t require any special knowledge or training to read or reply to. That’s why for the first few years FixMyStreet sent all its problem reports via email, WhatDoTheyKnow sent all its FOI requests via email, and WriteToThem sent all its letters to politicians via email and fax (remember fax?).
However, despite the fact that reading and responding to emails doesn’t require governments to procure any new technology or any new skills, these days this approach can clearly be bettered. Today, an email report of a broken paving slab will typically be received by a public servant working in a call centre. This person will normally cut and paste text from the email into a new database, or into a new email, before dispatching it for someone else to consider, and action.
Now, imagine that instead of this, a problem report about a broken paving slab could be sent directly from a citizen and placed into the electronic to-do list for the local government team who fix paving slabs. This would do more than just cut costs – it would make it much easier for the citizen to get sent a notification when their problem is marked as ‘resolved’ in the official database.
This is not an original idea. The team at mySociety are not the only people who think that enabling citizens to directly slot requests, messages and problem reports into local government ‘to do’ databases is desirable. In the USA a group of civic minded technologists at OpenPlans were concerned by the same issue. They decided to do something about it – and they launched a project under the banner of Open311.
In the USA a number of cities have non-emergency government telephone helplines, accessible at the phone number 311. As a consequence ‘311’ has come to refer to more than just a phone line – it has come to mean the entire process of handling service requests from citizens around a whole range of non-emergency issues, from garbage to noisy neighbours.
To the ears of some American public servants the name ‘Open311′ consequently conjures up an image of a better, nicer more ‘open’ way of handling such non-emergency requests from citizens.
So what is Open311?
Beyond a brand, what is Open311? The answer is simple: Open311 is standardised way for computers to report problems (like potholes or fallen trees) to the computers run by the bodies that can fix them (like local governments or city departments). It’s an open standard that was started by the lovely people at OpenPlans, and which is now slowly iterating with the help of people inside and outside of governments.
In other words, Open311 is the mechanism through which citizens can slot their service requests directly into the computerised ‘to do’ lists of local government staff, and the way they those citizens can get back progress updates more quickly and easily.
Why is an Open Standard a good thing?
An open standard is just a way of communicating that anyone can implement it, without paying any money for permission to use the technology. The good thing about open standards is that once several technology systems start using the same ones, different systems from different manufacturers can talk to each other. When you phone someone else’s telephone, you are using an open standard – this means you don’t have to have the same brand of phone as the person at the other end.
What this means for a government is that if you can make your database of pothole reports speak to the outside world using Open311 then you don’t have to worry if reports are coming from two, ten or a thousands different websites or apps. You just run one system and it copes with all of them. This is not actually a new idea at all – local government call centres don’t worry what telephone network people are phoning from, or what brand of phone they are using.
However, it is a new idea in the realm of government IT systems for storing things like pothole repair requests, or school-admission applications. Traditionally these systems have not been set up to speak a common language with the outside world. Unfortunately, this failure to speak a common language has not always been by accident. Unscrupulous suppliers will sometimes intentionally set up systems so that the government has to pay extra money if they want any new channels to be added. Using Open311 is both a way to lower your future costs, and a way to make sure your current supplier can’t lock you into expensive upgrades.
Isn’t opening our systems to the outside a security nightmare?
Open311 is not about opening up private data, such as exposing the home addresses of vulnerable children. Open311 can be configured to open up government systems where that is appropriate, and everything that needs to stay private will stay private. There are no fundamental security problems to using an Open311 system.
Is this just about pothole reports?
No. Open311 isn’t limited to street-fixing services like FixMyStreet, even though that kind of problem is where Open311 started. As more and more public bodies offer their services online, they all face the same problem of spiralling costs as the public demands access through more and more diverse channels. In the future it should be possible to renew parking licenses, pay local taxes and do other complex transactions via Open311. But for today we encourage everyone interested to start at the simpler end of the scale.
How does mySociety use Open311?
We will still happily connect FixMyStreet to systems that don’t use Open311, but we always explain to clients that Open311 is the most desirable way of connecting their new FixMyStreet deployment with their current problem databases. We even offer lower prices to governments who use Open311.
We offer lower prices this partly because our costs go down, but also because we want to leave local governments with street-fault reporting systems that can connect not just to FixMyStreet, but to any new services in this area that emerge in the future. If Google maps or Twitter suddenly add street fault reporting, why should the local governments have to pay more money to handle those problems, when it could get them for free using Open311?
In short, we see Open311 as a solid foundation for building local government services without locking our clients into a relationship with mySociety as suppliers. In future we will also recommend the use of Open311 for services like ‘Please send me a new recycling bin’, ‘Please tell me what jobs you have open’ and ‘Please answer this FOI request’.
In the next post we’ll cover how Open311 works in a bit more detail (but still as clearly as we can), and in a third post we’ll explain how our work with FixMyStreet for Councils has led us to propose some improvements to the Open311 standard.
Photo by Rupert Ganzer (CC)
The last few weeks since the US election have seen an explosion in articles and blog posts about how Obama’s tech team pulled out the stops in their race against the Republicans. It’s been an exciting time to learn about the new techniques dreamed up, and the old ones put to the test.
For those of us who develop non-partisan services to help people report broken street lights or make Freedom of Information Requests, such stories certainly seem unimaginably glamorous: I don’t think any of my colleagues will ever get hugged by Barack Obama!
But it has also been an interesting time to reflect on the difference between choosing to use tech skills to win a particular fight, versus trying to improve the workings of the democratic system, or helping people to self-organise and take some control of their own lives.
At one level there’s no competition at all: the partisan tech community is big and economically healthy. It raises vast amounts of cold hard cash through credit card payments (taking a cut to pay its own bills) and produces squillons of donors, signers, visitors, tweeters, video watchers and so on. The non-partisan tech community is much smaller – has fewer sustainable organisations, and with the exception of some big online petitions, doesn’t get the same sort of traffic spikes. By these metrics there’s absolutely no doubt which use of tech is the most important: the partisan kind where technology is used to beat your opponent, whether they are a political candidate, a policy, company, or an idea.
But I am still filled with an excitement about the prospects for non-partisan technologies that I can’t muster for even the coolest uses of randomized control trial-driven political messaging. The reason why all comes down to the fact that major partisan digital campaigns change the world, but they don’t do it in the way that services like eBay, TripAdvisor and Match.com do.
What all these sites have in common – helping people sell stuff they own, find a hotel, or a life partner – is that they represent a positive change in the lives of millions of people that is not directly opposed by a counter-shift. These sites have improved the experience of selling stuff, finding hotels and finding life partners in ways that don’t attract equal and opposite forces, driven by similar technologies.
This is different from the case of campaigning tech: here a huge mailing list is pitted against another even huger mailing list. Epic fund-raising tools are pitched against even more epic fund-raising tools. Orca vs Narwhal. Right now, in US politics, the Democrats have a clear edge over the technology lined up against them, and I totally understand why that must feel amazing to be part of. But everything you build in this field always attracts people trying to undo your work by directly opposing it. There is something inate to the nature of partisanship which means that one camp using a technology will ultimately attract counter-usage by an opposing camp.
This automatic-counterweighting doesn’t happen with services that shift whole sectors – like TripAdvisor did. In the hotel-finding world, the customer has been made stronger, the hotel sector weaker, and the net simply doesn’t provide tools to the hotel industry to counter what TripAdvisor does.
It is this model – the model of scaleable, popular technology platforms that help people to live their lives better – that I aspire to bring to the civic, democratic and community spheres in my work. Neither I nor mySociety has yet come up with anything even remotely on the scale of a TripAdvisor, but there remains the tantalising possibility that someone might manage it – a huge, scaleable app of meaningful positive impact on democratic, civic or governance systems*. Our sites are probably about as big as it gets so far, and that’s not big enough by far.
If someone does manage to find and deliver the dream – some sort of hugely scalable, impactful non-partisan civic or democratic app & website, it is unlikely that the net will instantly throw up an equal and opposite counterweight. There is a real possibility that the whole experience of being a citizen, the whole task of trying to govern a country well will be given a shot in the arm that won’t go away as soon as someone figures out how to oppose it. I’m not talking Utopia, I’m just talking better. But what motivates me is that it could be better for good, not just until the Other Team matches your skills.
And that – in rather more words than I meant to use – is why I am still excited by non-partisan tech, and why I really hope that some of the awesome technologists who worked in the political campaigns of 2012 get involved in our scene.
I’m on Twitter if anyone wants to talk about this more.
* You can certainly make an argument that Twitter and Facebook sort-of represent non-partisan democracy platforms that have scaled. But some people disagree vehemently, and I don’t want to get into that here.
“It’s rare to find people who can piece together the strategy and the technology – you usually get one or the other.” – Helen Milner, Chief Executive at UK Online
Across the UK council officers are facing the same problem – the audience has rapidly turned to mobile devices, but council sites are resolutely stuck in the desktop era. What to do?
mySociety are experts in the processes required to convert traditional local council websites to mobile websites and apps. We understand the challenges that come with presenting complex council information on a mobile interface, and the problems of getting old systems to catch up. We can help you with both aspects.
Mobile strategy for councils
Residents increasingly expect to access council services from a mobile: you only have think about finding a car park, reporting vandalism, or checking bus timetables to see that mobile access needs to be an integral part of a council’s online strategy. Your reputation will depend on it.
Most council websites were built long before we envisaged such widespread mobile usage. As a result, adapting council websites to mobile can seem a daunting task – but it’s an essential part of your switch to digital by default.
It requires experience and patience to understand how user behaviours differ on mobile websites and on desktops. It also means prioritising the kind of content that your users will need on-the-go, and creating simple user journeys that enable them to get things done.
“We’ve had an incredibly positive relationship.” – Chris Palmer, Assistant Director of Communications at Barnet Council
Mobile Web Development Too
At mySociety, we can do much more than just strategy. We offer a full service web development service, and we can deliver everything between wire frames and full working websites. Many councils with existing CMSes, for example, may need updated HTML and CSS, and mySociety can provide this in a mobile optimised way.
Mobile council website or council app?
The most common question we get from councils who are considering their mobile strategy is whether they should build a mobile-optimised council website, or build a council app.
There are pros and cons for each, which we’ll be happy to explore with you.
mySociety have extensive experience in building both mobile sites and apps, and we can also offer packages that include both.
Talk to us about mobile strategy for council websites
Contact us now – we’re always happy to talk.
mySociety are a trusted supplier to several local governments, including Barnet, Blackburn, Bromley, Hounslow, Lichfield, Nottinghamshire, Southampton, Surrey, Westminster – and we’ve also worked for No 10 Downing Street and even given advice to the White House.
Image credit: KG Nixer
Recruiting a Head of Digital or an experienced CIO is not a task to be taken lightly. But the right skills in the right positions can revolutionise the way you offer your services online – and potentially the way the entire organisation works.
Finding senior digital staff, capable of folding a whole organisation around digital possibilities, is a tall order. It’s especially tough when you’re caught in a Catch 22 – your organisation needs good digital skills in order to hire good digital skills. And classical recruitment agencies are not themselves famed for their understanding of what makes for strong or weak digital skills, especially not at the most senior levels.
mySociety is different. We are not a recruitment agency. We are a not-for-profit organisation which happens to have a unique, in-depth knowledge of the internet and experience in how it can best be used in organisations of all sizes.
That’s because we spend a lot of time researching and discussing best practice in the ever-changing field that is digital technology. We offer you our hard-won knowledge as a consultancy package specifically tailored to help you find and hire the right person to move your organisation forward.
“The consultation was very valuable. The breadth and level of experience, plus a preference for simple solutions, was really refreshing” Anthony Smith, Chief Executive at Passenger Focus
Blue Chip Clients
mySociety have worked with clients as wide-ranging as Channel 4, Passenger Focus, No 10 Downing Street, East Midlands Trains, and many UK local councils.
We have been building innovative, usable websites and online tools for over a decade, and providing advice to CEOs and senior managers for years. We are ruthless in our prioritisation of usability, simplicity and user-centred design, and we’ll ask the right questions to ensure that the person you hire has a similar outlook.
mySociety is a not-for-profit organisation: revenue from our commercial work goes towards our charitable projects.
Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?
At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.
But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.
Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.
The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.
Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?
Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?
Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.
Heartless Bourgeois Pig
Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.
I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.
And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.
The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.
To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.
Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.
This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility. As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?
It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.
Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future
I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.
The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.
The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.
Getting digital people to the top table
The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.
Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?
The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plug – we can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.
If you live anywhere in Britain, it won’t have escaped your attention that it’s been raining a bit, recently.
This has been causing quite a bit of flooding. And when flooding happens, people need to know if it is going to affect them.
Unfortunately, the Environment Agency flood warning website leaves something to be desired. It is, quite frankly, a usability dogs’ breakfast, with problems including:
- It doesn’t answer the main question: Most users arriving at this page simply want to know if they might be in danger. The page should be all about answering that question.
- It is trying to serve national and local needs: Information about flooding across the whole country might be useful to journalists or civil servants, but it shouldn’t be the main element.
- Clutter, clutter: A massive grid of numbers which don’t really mean anything, plus lots of sidebar links.
- Confusing graphics: The page contains a national map which doesn’t actually make it clear that the colours relate to the seriousness of flooding, or that it provides links to further content.
There are also some non-design problems with the postcode lookup, but today we want to stick to just the design issues.
Not just moaning minnies
At mySociety we try to be constructive in our criticism, and so whilst the flood waters are still draining from many people’s homes, we thought that we could do something positive. We want to show that a flood warning page could be an exemplar of clear, user-centered information design. So we made a mockup.
Some of the improvements we’d like to point out are:
- A big page title that makes it obvious what this page is, and the fact that it is official information.
- All the main elements on the page are now focussed on the most likely needs of potential flood victims – journalists can follow a link to a different page for their needs.
- We’ve removed roughly 90% of the links on the page for clarity.
- We’ve removed all numerical data because it wasn’t adding value. Nobody can know if ‘5 warnings’ is a lot or a little without some context. As a nod to the overall context we’ve put in a simple graph, similar to a sparkline.
- It presents a clear button to click on if you’re actually endangered by a flood.
- It gives you a way to find out if other people near you are talking about local flooding via social media.
We hope you like this. It’s just the product of a couple of hours’ work, so if you have any suggestions on how it could be better, please let us know.
And, of course, we’re always happy to do similar work for other people.
These ‘websites in a box’ are a key part of our strategy to help people develop more successful civic and democratic websites around the world, but they are only the first half of our plan. Today I wanted to talk about the other half.
There are some use-cases for software in which most people are entirely happy to take some software off the shelf, press ‘Go’, and start using it. WordPress is a good example, and so is Microsoft Office.
However, there are some kinds of social issues that vary so much between different countries and regions that we believe one-size-fits-all tools for attacking them are impracticable.
This problem is particularly acute in the arena of sites and apps that allow people to track the activities of politicians. In this area there are several dozen different sites globally, almost all of which are powered by software that was written bespoke for that particular usage.
What drives this pattern of people re-writing every site from scratch is that people in different places care about different aspects of politics. In some countries what really counts is how politicians vote, in others the crux is campaign finance contributions, in others it is information on who has criminal records, and in others still it is whether public money has been vanishing suspiciously.
To build an off-the-shelf software platform that could handle all this data equally well in every country would be an immense coding task. And more important than that, we believe that it would create a codebase so huge and complex that most potential reusers would run away screaming. Or at least ignore it and start from scratch.
In short – we don’t believe there can be a WordPress for sites that monitor politicians, nor for a variety of other purposes that relate to good governance and stronger democracies.
We believe that the wrong answer to this challenge is to just say “Well then, everyone should build their own sites from scratch.” Over the years we at mySociety have been witness to the truly sad sight of people and organisations around the world wearing themselves out and blowing their budgets just trying to get the first version of a transparency website out the door. All too often they fail to create popular, long lasting sites because the birthing process is just so exhausting and resource-consuming that there’s nothing left to drive the sites to success. Often they don’t even get to launch.
A painful aspect of this problem is that the people who work on such sites are genuine altruists who are trying to solve serious problems in their part of the world; too much of their passion and energy is used up on building tools, when there’s still so much work beyond that that’s needed to make such sites successful. However, as we pointed out above, giving them a complete package on a plate isn’t an option. So what can we do?
Our Proposed Answer – The Components
We start from the following observation: coders and non-coders like simple, minimal, attractive tools that help them achieve bigger goals. Simple tools don’t make anyone run away screaming – they encourage exploration and deliver little sparkles of satisfaction almost immediately. But simple tools have to be highly interoperable and reliable to form the foundation of complex systems.
Our plan is to collaborate with international friends to build a series of components that deliver quite narrow little pieces of the functionality that make up bigger websites. These include:
There will be more, possibly many more. Our goal is to radically collapse the time it takes to build new civic and democratic (and possibly governmental) websites and apps, without putting constraints on creativity.
- PopIt – A Component to store and share the names of politicians, and the jobs they have.
- MapIt – A Component to store and share information on the locations of administrative boundaries, like counties, regions or cities.
- SayIt – A Component to store and share information on the words that public figures say or put out in writing.
Characteristics of each Component
There are some crucial architecture decisions that have been baked into the Components, to truly make them ‘small pieces loosely joined’.
- Each Component is fundamentally a tool for storing and sharing one or two kinds of common data – they’re intentionally minimalist.
- As a developer, you just use the Components that make sense for your goals – you simply don’t have to look at or learn about the Components that contain functionality that doesn’t matter to you.
- You don’t have to install anything to get started – you can always begin by playing with a hosted Component.
- We won’t impose our taste in programming languages on you. You can code your website in whatever language you want. The Components are not ‘modules’ – they don’t plug into some overarching framework like Drupal or WordPress. They are stand-alone tools which just present you data over REST APIs, and which you can write data into using REST APIs.
- Each Component’s data structures will offer as much flexibility as makes sense given the goal of keeping each Component really good at one or two tasks. We’ll listen to feedback carefully to get this right.
- Each Component has a clean, simple web front end so you can explore the data held in a store without having to write lots of SQL queries. Often you will be able to edit the data this way, too.
- Get started in seconds – each Component offers at least some functionality which is available inside a minute after getting involved.
- Non coders are welcome – we are building the Components so that non-coders can start gathering, editing and sharing data straight away, possibly long before they are in a position to launch a ‘real site’.
- Data can be added to the Components both through write APIs and through manual editing interfaces, suitable for non-coders.
- Learn from our mistakes – it is really easy to get the wrong data structure for civic, democratic or governmental data. Good practice data structures are baked into the Components, to save you pain later.
- Use our hosted versions, or install open source code locally. It will normally be quicker to get started in using the Components in a hosted environment, but if you want to run them locally, you’re entirely welcome. The code will be open source, and we’ll work hard to make sure it’s attractive and easy to install.
- The Components will talk to each other, and to the rest of the web using simple open schemas which will evolve as they are built. Where possible we’ll pick up popular data standards and re-use those, rather than building anything ourselves.
What the Components Aren’t
Sometimes in life it can be easier to describe things by what they aren’t:
- The Components are definitively not modules in a framework or platform. Each one is totally independent, and they will frequently be written in different languages – partly to force us to ensure that the APIs are truly excellent.
- The Components aren’t either Hosted or Local, they’re both. We’ll always offer a hosted version and a downloadable version, and you’ll always be able to move any data you have stored on the hosted versions down to your local copies.
- The Components aren’t all about mySociety. We’re planning to build the first ones in conjunction with some friends, and we’ll be announcing more about this soon. We want the family of Components to be jointly owned by a group of loving parents.
When can I see some of the Components in Action?
We’ll be blogging more about that tomorrow…
Footnote – To see the provenance of the extremely useful ‘small pieces loosely joined’ concept, see this.